by Jenny Kimura, Collaborative Designer
As a designer, my favorite part of the entire cover-design process (besides, perhaps, seeing the final cover in print) is brainstorming those first, preliminary ideas for a book cover. It’s a crucial moment when author, designer, and sometimes editor come together to develop a vision for the cover ahead. And while book summaries and character descriptions and font choices all play a part in that brainstorming session, I find that few things are more helpful than a well-curated selection of comp covers.
Now, you may have heard of comp titles—a list of books that are editorially similar to your own work—but comp covers are a list of book covers that are visually similar to what you want your cover to look like. Just as a pitch phrase like “Star Wars meets Parks and Recreation” would tell you a lot about a book in just a few succinct words, comp covers help your designer not only understand your vision for your book, but also determine how your cover can both stand out on the bookshelf and draw the right audience for your book.
Comp covers also help designers get a sense of what art style your book should be—something that is often elusive without comp covers to refer to. Should the featured artwork look more literary or commercial? Should it feel modern or rustic? Should it focus more on typography or artwork?
While editors at a publishing house may typically handle putting together a set of comp titles and comp covers for your book, if you are publishing independently, you may want to provide comp covers directly to your cover designer. Here are some tips and tricks to get you started:
1. Make a list of covers you admire that are in the same genre or category for your book. You may want to start with books that are similar in plot or theme, but don’t limit it to just those! Keep your choices recent—they should have been published within the last two to three years or so. Some great places to look for covers are Goodreads lists or a simple Google image search, like “romance book covers [current year].” And don’t just limit your search online, either—if you are able, order or borrow books to really examine how the covers look in person. And, if available, see what bookstores have put out in their windows and on their shelves. Which covers do you notice right away?
2. Make notes about what you like about these covers, and especially look for patterns between them: Do they all use hand-brushed fonts? Do they tend to use brighter colors or a more pastel palette? What kind of art is used—is it photographic or illustrated? Is the art narrative, meaning that it depicts an important scene from the book, like the Harry Potter covers, or is it more literary and symbolic, using patterns, abstract objects, or decorative type, like Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age or Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill?
3. Make notes about what you don’t like. Sometimes we figure out what we want to see by ruling out what we don’t want. And even though making a list of dislikes seems negative, it’s better for both you and your designer to know what you don’t like from the very beginning. If you don’t like covers with hard-to-read cursive letters, mention it up front, especially if it’s a big trend in your book’s genre. If you can’t quite explain what it is that bugs you in book covers, find an example! A picture really is worth a thousand words.
That being said, also consider why you aren’t responding to covers with elements you dislike in your chosen genre or category. Is it a personal opinion, or is it because it will not represent your book in the right way? Both can be valid reasons, but providing justification may help you figure out the root of the issue, which is ultimately more valuable in putting together a winning cover that you’ll be itching to show off everywhere you go.
4. Do some research and find samples of artwork you like. It may take some digging, but check the back covers, back flaps, and copyright pages of your compiled comp covers for the names of cover artists. If you don’t have a physical copy, Google “[book title] [cover artist illustrator]” and see what comes up. Many book cover artists have more than just the one cover under their belt, and seeing some of their other work may help you and your designer get a sense of what you’re looking for. Also, take a look at stock image sites including Shutterstock, Getty Images, Trevilion, and Arcangel. You might be inspired by what you find!
5. Finally, be open to new ideas! Consider comp covers as a jumping-off point, not something you have to stick to. Your original ideas and the designer’s initial ideas for your cover may not work out for one reason or another. But they may lead to something even greater and fresher than any cover that’s been on the shelf before.
Jenny Kimura is a book designer and freelance graphic designer who spends most of her waking hours thinking about her next big cover design (and the rest of the time dreaming about it). She is a junior book designer at a Big 5 publisher and a collaborative designer with Indigo: Editing, Design, and More. You can see her portfolio at www.jennykimura.com.